A significant amount of research has been conducted on the lay attributions of poverty and the subsequent influence
on helping behavior. The purpose of this study was to further the work on how religion mediates poverty attributions
by extending the research into a LDS population. As the result of the high conservative influence in the LDS
sample, we hypothesized that the individualistic attribution would be the more popular choice. There were 144
BYU-Idaho students that filled out an Internet survey. This survey used a five-point scale to measure students’ attributions
of poverty. A factor analysis revealed six factors that accounted for 62.9 percent of the variance, while an
ANOVA test showed that individualistic and structural attributions were used more than fatalistic attributions
to explain poverty. Our hypothesis was only partially supported. It appears that religious influence reduced
the effect that political orientation exerted on poverty attribution. A limitation in our study is our relatively
homogenous sample. Future research needs to be conducted to flesh out why religion exerts influence on poverty
Recent estimates of poverty showed that 1.4 billion people in developing countries were living in poverty (World
Bank Group, 2010). Even in the United States 13.2 percent of the population was estimated to be below the poverty
threshold (Bishaw, & Renwick, 2009). Because of the prevalence of poverty in the world a significant amount
of research has been conducted on the lay attributions of poverty and the subsequent influence on helping behavior
(Wilson, 1996; Hine, & Montiel, 1999).
Research has shown that perceptions of poverty
were often identified in one of three groups. The first group emphasized individualistic explanations. These
highlight individual responsibility and characterological weaknesses on the part of the poor. Structural explanations,
on the other hand, emphasized the economy, exploitation by corrupt corporations, and irresponsible government.
The third group emphasized fatalistic explanations, such as, bad luck or the will of God (Hine & Montiel,
1999; Nasser, Singhal, & Abouchedid, 2005).
Several patterns were found in certain groups relative to their attributions of poverty. For instance, Zucker
and Weiner (1993) found that “Conservatives generally rate individualistic causes as being more important
than do liberals who, in turn, rate societal and fatalistic causes as being more important than do conservatives" (p.
940). This finding was also reported by Williams (1984). Although many findings are robust, some studies conflict
(see amount of education in relation to poverty attributions in Alston, & Dean, 1972, contrasted with Feagin,
Another interesting pattern dealt with religious affiliation and poverty attribution. Feagin (1972) and Feather
(1974) found that Protestants were more likely than Catholics to attribute poverty to individual causes, both
in an American sample and a non-American sample. However, Feagin (1972) found that black Protestants were most
likely to use structural explanations. This study sought to further work on religious attributions of poverty
by surveying another Christian population: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS).
In that many of the beliefs of the LDS church
can be considered conservative, especially in terms of definitions of marriage and family and in an emphasis
on traditional values, we felt that this relation to conservative values would also be reflected in the poverty
attributions of a LDS sample. Thus, our hypothesis was that a LDS sample would attribute poverty mainly to individual
The participants in this study were obtained through a random sample of 144 Brigham Young University-Idaho students
who received an Internet based survey via e-mail
The participants received an e-mail that
linked them to a survey of 25 questions (from Nasser, Singhal, & Abouchedid, 2005). These questions were
rated on a 5-point scale. The instructions as well as a sample of questions are listed below:
The statements below depict
some beliefs about poverty and poor people in the country and seek to know your own beliefs about them as different
theses are advanced about their plight. There are no right or wrong responses. Please read one statement at a
time and rate these on a five-point scale in the light of your beliefs, perceptions, and understanding of your
own situation. For the next questions, answer according to this key: Fully Agree=5, Partly Agree=4, Neither Agree
Nor Disagree=3, Partly Disagree=2, Fully Disagree=1
I think in this country many persons are poor because
- There are many workers who are available for work at low wage.
- The government lacks good money management.
- The government is unable to provide education for all.
- The government is unable to provide health for all.
- People find that the culture puts on them too many social obligations (spending on relatives' gifts).
The results were analyzed by a repeated measures ANOVA, which showed that the level of agreement was different
across poverty attribution types, F (1.98, 845.13) = 93.08, p < .05. The mean scores
indicated that there was significantly less agreement on the fatalistic attributions (M = 2.61, SD = 1.28) than
on both the individual (M = 3.35, SD = 1.12) and the structural (M = 3.68, SD = 1.16) attributions. That is,
the sample agreed more with the individual and structural attributions than with fatalistic attributions. The
paired sample t-tests revealed that the fatalistic and individualistic pair was significantly different, t(428)
= -8.802, p < .05, as was the fatalistic and structural pair, t(428) = -13.282, p < .05.
There was not a significant difference between structural and individualistic attributions, t(1000) = -.594, p > .05. Thus,
our sample attributed poverty most strongly to individual and structural causes without a significant difference
between the two (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Mean Scores of Poverty Attributions in a LDS Sample
The items were analyzed with the principal component solution and Varimax rotation (see Figure 2). This analysis
reduced the 17 items into six factors that accounted for 62.9 percent of the variance (see Table 1). The first
factor, disposition of the poor, accounted for 16.19 percent of the variance. The loading items attributed poverty
to human dispositions and lack of adequate effort on the part of the poor. The second factor, government, accounted
for 13.42 percent of the variance. The three loading items attributed poverty to the government’s inability
to provide healthcare and education and the government’s lack of money management. The third factor, politics,
accounted for 9.81 percent of the variance. The two loading items attributed poverty to governmental policies
and politics. The fourth factor, destiny, accounted for 8.51 percent of the variance. The two loading items attributed
poverty to the poor’s destiny to be poor and God’s will. The fifth factor, external forces, accounted
for 8.2 percent of the variance. The two loading items attributed poverty to the poor being frequently sick and
handicapped and to falling prey to social evils. The last factor, uncontrollable external forces, accounted for
6.77 percent of the variance. There was one loading item, which attributed poverty to forces that cannot be understood
Figure 2. Scree Plot showing the amount of variance explained by the factor analysis.
Table 1. Factor Analysis of Poverty Items
Poor human dispositions
Lack of adequate effort by poor
Gov. unable to provide healthcare
Gov. unable to provide education
Gov. lacks money management
Gov. policies add to suffering of poor
Politics ensure that poor remain poor
Poor are destined to be poor
It is the will of God for them
External Forces (individualistic)
Poor are frequently sick and handicapped
Poor fall prey to social evils
External Forces (uncontrollable)
There are external forces that we cannot understand or control
The results of the study highlight the importance of religion as a mediating variable in poverty attributions.
The hypothesis that a LDS population would make individualistic attributions was partially supported in that
the individualistic and structural attributions were not significantly different. Due to the conservative influence,
we believed that our sample would have an individualistic attribution (Zucker & Weiner, 1993). However, it
seems that religion may have padded the impact that political views may have had. That is, the religious influence
seemed to reduce the impact that political ideology exerted on poverty attribution. Self-categorization theory
may help to explain these results. Self-categorization theory holds that certain groups can become psychologically
significant to its members, such that, the group becomes important in determining behavior of the members (Hogg,
2004). Hence, it is possible that the LDS religion may be more psychologically significant to its members than
their political ideology, causing the strong effect of Conservatism to be lessened in our sample.
Hine and Montiel (1999) identified an unexamined
assumption in the poverty attribution literature. They noted that, “Although researchers often assume that
poverty attributions are an important determinant of decisions to help or not to help the poor, few (if any)
studies have tested this proposition directly” (p. 945). In their study they included a questionnaire purportedly
linking attributions to helping behavior. In their questionnaire they asked how often respondents had engaged
in certain helping behaviors, such as writing a letter to a government official, attending a meeting dealing
with antipoverty actions, or making a phone call. Their study showed that helping behavior was moderately correlated
with a structural attribution. So, they concluded that a structural attribution increased helping behavior. However,
they only measured the type of helping behavior one would engage in if one held a structural attribution of poverty.
In fact, it seems that the type of helping behavior engaged in is a function of the type of attribution made.
For instance, Brooks (2006) showed that Conservatives donate substantially more to charitable organizations than
Liberals. This finding contradicts the assumption that only a structural view is correlated with helping behavior,
because Conservatism is associated with individualistic assumptions. Hence, it is false to say that one type
of attribution is more associated with helping behavior than another. It seems more likely that the type of attribution
you make determines the type of helping behavior and that whether or not your help is dependent on other mediating
variables. In short, people from all types of attributions help, but how one helps is dependent on how one attributes.
Our study is related to the work of Feagin (1972) and Feather (1974), who found that Protestants were more likely
than Catholics to attribute poverty to individualistic causes, while Catholics were more likely to attribute
poverty to structural causes. Thus, it seems that the LDS theology partially supports both attributions without
excluding the other. A limitation of the study is that the sample contained university students
from a middle class background. Thus, the homogeneity of our sample may not be representative of the LDS population
as a whole. Also, the Conservative influence was inferred from the moral standards and principles of our sample.
So, the Conservative influence may not be as strong as supposed. Future research is needed to
directly measure political ideology with religion to examine the effects. Also, more work needs to be done to
flesh out why religion exerts influence on poverty attributions. Further, future research should examine the
assumption that poverty attributions directly influence helping behavior.
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Note: This research was supported by Dr. Larry L. Thurgood, Dean of the College of Education
and Human Development at Brigham Young University-Idaho. We would also like to thank Dr. Scott
Bergstrom, Institutional Research & Assessment Officer, for providing us with our sample.